You’re a good parent. You want to help your kids grow up to be happy and successful. So, when you notice them doing something right, you jump in with praise and encouragement.
“You’re awesome! Way to go!”
But is all that encouragement doing what it’s supposed to? Does praising children this way send the right message?
Turns out the answer is, yes and no.
You’ve got the first part right – as parents we are our children’s first and foremost cheerleaders. Our children need to hear encouragement from us to go on to have a healthy level of self-confidence and eventually a healthy self-esteem.
The key however, is to understand what kind of praise is appropriate in which situation.
Think of praise as water. It is like a life force that has the power to help a little acorn grow into a huge oak tree. It has the power to keep everything green and beautiful and growing.
But, it also has the power to drown, rot or just mildew everything. And even a few drops of water can douse a spark that was about to kindle a warm fire.
The key, like everything, is knowing when and how to use it correctly.
In today’s article, let’s focus on praising children the right way without spoiling them in the process or hurting them in the long run. The goal is to help them blossom into their beautiful, full-potential selves filled with self-confidence and the incredible courage required to pursue their dreams.
OK, here we go –
Example Scenario: The Budding Artist
Consider this sample scenario adapted from the book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. And try to really get into this scenario by picturing the image of your child as you read the scenario. Also feel free to replace “artist” with whatever is appropriate for your child.
Let’s say it’s one of those rare quiet weekends — for a change you have no other plans and you have the whole morning to yourselves. You ask your daughter what she wants to do, and she chooses to do some art.
As you help her get set up with the paper, paint etc., you realize that she always seems to choose art over any other activity and she does seem to draw/paint well. You can’t help but wonder if she has a natural talent for it.
For quite some time after that, she is completely engrossed in her painting. Just as you notice how much uninterrupted time you’ve had to finish up your chores and marvel at how much effort she is putting into it, she walks up to you proudly displaying her painting and asks “Mom (or Dad), do you like my painting?”
How would you respond if the painting is detailed and indeed a beautiful piece of art?
On the other hand, what if she is holding up a mess and you have no clue what it is supposed to be (with younger kids) or something that is so obviously out of proportion that it looks rather grotesque (in case of older kids)?
Let’s inspect some sample responses –
Praising Children: What DOESN’T Work (and Why)
Response 1: Irrespective of whether it is indeed a good painting or not, you put on your best smile and cheerfully say “Wow, great job!” with the best intention of encouraging your child.
Why it’s not a good choice:
This kind of praise is the least effective since it only provides a momentary good feeling due to the positive attention, but does not give any clue about why it is a “great job”.
If we constantly use this kind of praise without moderation (and sadly, most of us do just that!), we may actually turn our kids into praise junkies who will do anything, even a very shabby job, to get their regular fix of a quick feel-good emotion brought on by a “great job”.
Here’s another nasty side-effect. Sometimes I’m busy and don’t have the time to give appropriate attention to what my daughter is showing me and I tend to say “great job” as a quick stand-in for real encouragement. Sadly, this makes “great job” disintegrate into a saccharine version of “go away”. And like the story of the boy who cried “wolf”, later at times when I do mean it as genuine praise, it ends up sending completely wrong signals.
Response 2: Let’s say the painting is really good. You are very proud of your child and enthusiastically say “That’s beautiful! You are a natural artist!”
Why it’s not a good choice:
This form of praising children is the birthplace of the fixed mindset that we so want to avoid. This statement contains an implicit message that natural talent is what makes someone/something great. From that the child may extrapolate that if she is seen putting in too much effort then she won’t be considered a “natural” any more. And since natural talent is what makes her special, she may not want to let go of that honor and may actually be dissuaded from putting in any effort into getting better. So whatever talent she may have gets stifled with no room to grow.
Also, this is too much of a burden to place on a child – the child now has to live up to the expectation of being a great natural artist every time she paints. Of course we don’t mean it that way, but can you think of a harsher way to kill the joy of simply enjoying the creative process?
Response 3: Let’s say you have no idea what the painting is about or the painting is rather grotesque. But, you want to be an encouraging parent and so you enthusiastically say “That’s beautiful! You are a natural artist!” anyway.
Why it’s not a good choice:
At some level our kids know when their work is sub-par. Your daughter may have tried to do something and when it didn’t work out, she may have just scribbled over it in frustration. Or she may realize that her proportions are off and the painting looks no good. She comes to you for comfort. When she receives praise, it confuses her — there is no link between the praise she is receiving and her perception of the situation.
While you may have good intentions, this does more harm than good because (a) it undermines the child’s ability to judge her own work and/or (b) it creates a sense of shame because mom/dad thinks so highly of her painting “skills” while deep down she worries that she sucks!
Now let’s take this a step further. What if your child replies to you with “I hate it. It’s no good!”
Now since we started out with “That’s beautiful!”, chances are we will continue with “Don’t say that! Of course it’s beautiful. I love it!”. Now it is a web of lies and we get tangled in it more and more. And unintentionally mess up our kids even more by insisting on not valuing their judgement and deepening their sense of frustration/shame.
So what are some of the alternate ways of praising children that can help them in the long run?
Praising Children: What Acually Works (and Why)
Response 1: Irrespective of whether it is indeed a good painting or not, you stop what you are doing (simmer the stove, or hit “save” and look away from your laptop etc.), pay real attention to what your child is showing you and say with a smile “You spent a lot of time working on that! What do we have here?”
Why it’s a good choice:
This response is very different from the previous responses and we have not explicitly praised anything. Yet, to our kids this matters more than any overt praise we try to provide!
In this response the action speaks volumes – your stopping what you are doing and paying real attention shows them that they matter and mom/dad cares about what they do. This lays a good foundation for healthy self-esteem as they grow up.
Your words focus on the time they spent working on the painting — something they can be proud of irrespective of the end result! When the focus is on the effort, rather than the results, it lays the foundation for finding intrinsic joy in the activity rather than looking an external source of feel-good emotions.
Finally, this opens up a great channel for communication. In the original example in the book that this scenario is adapted from, the child responds by saying that the picture is a forest where a witch lives and the parent continues to ask simple questions allowing the child to give the parent a little glimpse of her little inner world. Children make sense of the myriad things they face each day through conversations like these that may seem irrelevant or silly to us, but may actually help our kids resolve some of their internal conflicts by talking them through in a non-confrontational manner.
Response 2: Suppose it is a very good painting and you want to encourage your child by pointing it out, you could start the same as before ie., stop what you are doing, give your child complete attention and then say “I see you are getting better at painting each day! I remember there was a time you could barely draw a circle and look at you now! So, what do we have here?”
Why it’s a good choice:
Again, as before you are giving the child full attention and sending the signal that they are worth it.
However, here you are actually explicitly praising your child’s painting. The key difference from the fixed-mindset praise earlier is, your focus is not on any innate talent, but on the amount of effort your child has been putting into it. Talent is not within anybody’s control, effort is. So this kind of praise shows the child what they can do more of, if they want to get better at something that they think they are good at.
Also, by being descriptive, you let the child know in easily quantifiable terms that they have made progress. Not to mention, that mom/dad has noticed!
And of course, by asking a question in the end instead of leaving it a statement, you open it up for further discussion.
Response 3: Suppose the painting bombed. Again, after you stop what you are doing, you ask your child “You spent a lot of time working on that! What do we have here?” as before. Chances are the child will blurt out how much she tried to do something but it bombed or may lament that she sucks as painting etc.
Acknowledge her judgement – “Painting faces can be tough… Lots of artists spend years practicing how to get the proportions and expressions just right”.
Offer to help her improve – “Do you want to try art classes to get better at painting faces?” Or, if she is already taking classes “Why don’t we ask Miss Jess next week for some pointers on how to paint faces?” Or, “I think there are some online videos on techniques for painting faces – do you want me to help you look it up?”
Remember, your child may take you up on the offer, or may choose to continue sulking instead. Either are perfectly fine options. If your child was frustrated with the effort and needs to vent out steam, let them. Next week, we’ll specifically look at how to help kids overcome failure and setbacks (sign up here, if you’d haven’t already, to be notified by mail when the article comes out), but for now, focus on telling her how proud you are of her for the time and effort she put on it, irrespective of how it turned out. And in encouraging her to keep trying if it is indeed what she loves to do.
Why it’s a good choice:
This is the holy grail of positive reinforcement – something I was having trouble grasping when I wrote the article on positive reinforcement earlier. The key here is that we are slowly working on taking ourselves out of the equation, and letting our kids find intrinsic motivation in whatever they do.
We are teaching them that they are just as talented as the work they are willing to put into it. We are teaching them that they can trust their judgement. We are teaching them that it is OK for things to not always work out the way they expect. We are showing them that their value, in our eyes, does not depend on the results they produce, but rather on who they are. And we care about the choices they make (in this case, the choice to work hard on that painting). And all the good stuff that goes into making a happy, wholesome, well-adjusted person!
Alright, we’ve got to get one last thing out of the way before we wind up for the week. If you are reading this blog, chances are, you are a work-in-progress just like me. Which means, your effort of praising children and encouraging them is likely to be all over the place. That’s OK.
The key takeaway is to focus on effort rather than results, and slowly, over time, more and more of our responses will be like the final ones! Here’s to us to “growing” into great parents!
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Alright, time to take stock. Think of a simple situation from your family from the recent past.
- What was your praise like?
- Did it send the subtle message that being naturally talented/gifted is what matters?
- Or, did it send the message that effort is what matters?
- Did you override or encourage your child’s own judgement in the matter?
- If you found any shortfalls in your response, what other ways could you have responded instead, to encourage a growth mindset?
As always, there are no right or wrong answers. And of course, I would love for you to leave a comment and share some of your experiences
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Through the rest of the week, let’s be a little more mindful of how we are praising our children. It doesn’t take very long to get in the habit of praising the right way, once we are aware and make a conscious effort to choose our effort over skills or innate talent. Before long, we would have truly gone from being nagging parents to master motivators and what an amazing day that will be!